I explained this fact to a young couple who recently began conversion classes with me. We were chatting after services were over. We’d all chanted the Kiddush and the motzi and had started noshing on little miniature cheesecakes and other delectables.
I asked them if they knew about the “special rules” about Shabbat practice.
They did not. So, in very gentle language I spoke about the way Judaism encourages intimacy. “Intimacy,” I said, “creates bonds. Torah tells us that a husband has to make sure his wife is, um, regularly made happy so the bond is strengthened and renewed. The husband’s obligation is good for their entire life, even when there is neither the possibility nor the wish to have children. It’s a double mitzvah on Shabbat!” I smiled.
They got the idea. They smiled. Our temple’s Director of Religious Services, who had joined the conversation, also smiled.
Said director decided to help out by summarizing Talmudic discussions about exactly how happy a man had to make his wife each week. I noticed that she did this with a certain verve.
Just in case you need a refresher, here’s the text: “The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of R. Eliezer” (M. Ketubot 5:1).
The rabbis also insisted that loving couples should be nude during intimacy. Otherwise, the husband must divorce his wife so she can find a righteous dude who knows how to behave in bed: “R. Joseph learnt: Her flesh implies close bodily contact, viz, that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes. This provides support for [a ruling of] R. Huna who laid down that a husband who said, ‘I will not [perform conjugal duties] unless she wears her clothes and I mine’, must divorce her and give her also her ketubah” (Ketubot 48a).
Some rabbinic direction even includes how to progress through foreplay. I am not kidding. In the spirit of Rabbi Hillel, I say unto you: Go, and google.
Why did the rabbis decide it was especially meritorious to be intimate on Shabbat? They were especially concerned about balancing the need for study with the need for a family life. Some came to the conclusion that once a week was essential for scholars, and that since all work stopped on Shabbat, Shabbat was the perfect time for play.
Rashi calls the “Sabbath a night of enjoyment, relaxation and physical pleasure” (Rashi commentary on Ketubot 62b). Elsewhere Rashi advocates that not only scholars, but laypeople also should engage in this practice Friday nights (Rashi to Niddah 17a).
The rabbis claim’ that if a woman is the first to achieve “satisfaction” and becomes pregnant, she will surely give birth to a boy who would be a Torah scholar. Harumph, I say. The child could be a girl who might grow up to be a rabbi…
When we had concluded our explication of the double mitzvah deal on Shabbat, I turned around to get some more cheesecake.
I cast my eye upon the remains of the challah.
When we had unveiled the challah, I certainly had noticed it was in the shape of a heart and had raised it high for everyone to see. I exclaimed about its general liveliness. Crowded by the many children, I hadn’t much paid attention to the details.
Go back and look at the picture above. That was our challah.
I don’t know about you, but that has to be the most curious arrow I have ever seen.
I pointed this out to my Director of Religious Services.
“What does that look like to you?” I asked.
“It’s an arrow,” she said. “No, wait, no, um, oh my,” she said. “Oh my.”
I pointed it out to the treasurer, who began giggling uncontrollably. When she could control herself, she asked: “Should I tear it off?”
I won’t repeat what I said in that moment. You might find it rather unrabbi-like.
On the way home, in the cold and the dark, I looked at the stars twinkling overhead. I was happy that we had had a challah like that at our oneg. I hoped that whoever had made it, male or female, had gone home that very Friday night to a beloved, male or female, and engaged in an intimate pursuit of happiness.
Love, and its beautiful expression, should be a double mitzvah at any time.
Happy Valentine’s Day. Happy Shabbat.